CLAYTON, N.C. — English-speaking Roman Catholics who have regularly attended Mass for years found themselves in an unfamiliar position Sunday, needing printed cards or sheets of paper to follow along with a ritual many have known since childhood.
“I don’t think I said it the right way once,” said Matthew Hoover, who attends St. Ann Catholic Church in Clayton, a growing town on the edge of the Raleigh suburbs. “I kept forgetting, and saying the old words.”
The Mass itself — the central ritual of the Catholic faith — hasn’t changed, but the English translation has, in the largest shakeup to the everyday faith of believers since the upheavals that followed the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. A years-long process of revision and negotiation led to an updated version of the Roman Missal, the text of prayers and instructions for celebrating Mass, which originally was written in Latin. The new translation was rolled out across the English-speaking Catholic world on Sunday after months of preparation.
Mickey Mattox, a professor at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, said he was happy with the idea that the bishops wanted the translations as accurate as possible.
Adapting to the changes “was a lot less difficult than I thought it might be,” said Mattox, 55, adding, “even though probably all of us are going to end up holding our worship folders for a few weeks until we memorize all the new language.”
The Rev. George Witt, pastor of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on New York’s Park Avenue, started the 11 a.m. Mass by noting Sunday was not only the first day of Advent, but also the first day to use the new Missal. He directed parishioners to a pamphlet inserted into the back of the now-outdated hymnal that spelled out the new wording. A notable number of worshippers stumbled after the priest said, “Peace be with you.” The new response is “And with your spirit” instead of “And also with you.” But many others confidently gave the right response.
Kathleen McCormack, a church volunteer and former school teacher, said she didn’t like the new translation and didn’t understand why the church needed a translation closer to Latin.
“Consubstantial? What is that word?” McCormack said, referring to a term in the retranslated Nicene Creed that replaces language calling Jesus “one in being with the Father.”
But she saw a cautionary tale in the many Catholics she saw distance themselves from the church over changes made after the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
“It’s not shaking my church experience,” said McCormack, as she handed out church bulletins. “You have the spirit between you and God and the words are insignificant.”
Most of the changes are actually to prayers recited by the priest, but some of the changes for prayers spoken or sung by the congregation revise familiar words that for some people are spoken almost automatically after years of churchgoing.
Along with the new response and unfamiliar words, the affirmation “We believe” has been replaced with “I believe” in the Nicene Creed. Some of the language seems more formal or poetic: the word “cup” has become “chalice.”
“It’s more British in some ways,” said Monsignor Michael Clay, pastor of St. Ann. “But this is the first time that every English-speaking country in the world will be using the same translation of the Mass.”
Clay likes the new translation, finding it closer to the Latin text that is still the church’s official language. But some priests and parishioners have been less enthusiastic, criticizing the new version as too ponderous or distant, and in some cases circulating petitions asking for a delay in introducing the new missal.
Maribeth Lynch, 51, a publisher from the Milwaukee suburb of Elm Grove, said she was “distraught” over the changes and would refuse to “learn the damn prayers.”
“It’s ridiculous. I’ve been a Catholic for 50 years, and why would they make such stupid changes? They’re word changes. They’re semantics,” she said.
“It’s confusion. All it’s doing is causing confusion,” she said. “You want to go to church and be confused?”
The roots of the new translation go back to that epochal council held at the Vatican in the 1960s, which allowed Mass in languages other than Latin. An English-language missal was produced by 1973, but that was intended to be temporary while improvements were made.
In 2001, the Vatican office that oversees worship issued a directive requiring translation of the English missal that would be closer to the Latin rather than to more familiar vernacular speech. Numerous revisions and bishops’ meetings eventually produced agreement on the translation being used Sunday.
Parishes and dioceses around the country have spent months trying to prepare Catholics for the change. Descriptions of the new translation have been printed in weekly bulletins, seminars have been held and, since Labor Day, many parishes have been gradually introducing the new translation piece by piece, starting with the parts of the liturgy that are sung.
Most of those activities are for the benefit of the average Catholic, but it’s priests who have more new material to master.
“I’ve had a new missal in my hands for about three weeks now, and I’ve been literally practicing the prayers,” Clay said. “I’ve been doing this now for 31 years, and a lot of these prayers I actually know by memory. I have to make sure my brain isn’t getting ahead of my mouth.”